education philosopher

Murray Rothbard, Libertarianism, and Why Children Are Not Simply Houseguests

Posted in Education, Philosophy of, political philosophy by KevinCK on February 1, 2010

As a libertarian, it pains me to admit flaws with libertarianism as a philosophy. But one problem in libertarian theory I’ve become increasingly sensitive to is the problem of how children are handled in a libertarian society. I believe I know where the problem stems from, and also why certain existing arguments are flawed, but don’t have much idea on how to rectify these flaws without violating a certain amount of libertarian theory. Oh well. Here is my attempt, at least, to look at one of the more interesting arguments for how libertarian theory should treat kids: Murray Rothbard analogies parent/child relations to house-owner/houseguest relations.

Before getting into that, I want to briefly outline why I think libertarians have such a hard time with the “child problem.” Libertarians, I think, are good at dealing with two different ideas: people (in the sense of autonomous adults) and property. To put it bluntly, children are neither of these and are probably best seen as somewhere in between the two in resemblance. Children resemble, but are not, autonomous adults in certain ways: they are physically autonomous and their brains/minds are not linked to other brains/minds in that they can decide certain things for themselves.  But in other ways, children resemble, but are not, property: parents are legally responsible for taking care of children and children are in some sense ‘acquired’ by choice, children do not have a real choice in who their ‘owners’ are, etc.

But children are neither persons nor property. They are not quite autonomous persons because we – except some libertarians – recognize that children lack the mental ability to make certain decisions on their own or have the type of absolute freedom we grant to adults. Nor are they property because, morally, it strikes us as horrendous to think about parents being able to do anything they would like to their children. Unlike property, children have at least SOME freedoms.

Now, onto the Rothbardian argument, taken from an essay called “Kid Lib” (chapter 7 in the book Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature). In his essay, Rothbard is reacting to some libertarian and social liberal arguments’ that children should be let free to do what they would like at most or all times. Rothbard rightly notes that “no well regulated piece of property, including a household, can be run intelligently in such a manner.” Rothbard rightly notes that

We see here the fundamental flaw in the progressive notion that parents should allow their young children unlimited freedom to do as they wish and not to “impose” training, values, or education on them. For the young child, still not in possession of knowledge, values, self-discipline, or much rationality, is hardly in a position to be able to decide what he should be doing or wishing.

The problem is that this recognition is at odds with an analogy Rothbard makes earlier in the article, analogizing children to houseguests:

Where do the property rights lie? In the first place, the overriding fact of parent–child relations is that the child lives on the property of his parents. The child lives either in a house owned by his parents or in an apartment rented by them. Therefore, as in the case of any other “guest” living on someone else’s property, he must obey the rules set down by the property owners for remaining on that property.

The reason I say these two depictions of children  – one as somewhat helpless and the other as house-guest – don’t square with each other is that in modern parlance, a “guest” in the house is presumably there by choice where a non-autonomous child is not. Of course, the analogy of children as house-guests is somewhat accurate in that the child is literally being provided for on property they are not paying for. But the analogy stops there. Unlike other house-guests, children did not choose to be in that house and presumably do not have means (mental, financial, etc) to leave that house. (Of course, older children might, but young ones certainly do not and cannot be seen as analogous to house-guests.)

Now, to try and make this analogy stick, Rothbard gives the same rights of exit to children as he would to house-guests.

It is grotesque to think that the parents can actually own the child’s body as well as physical property; it is advocating slavery and denying the fundamental right of self-ownership to permit such ownership of others, regardless of age. Therefore, the child must always be free to run away; he then becomes a self-owner whenever he chooses to exercise his right to run-away freedom.

This will strike most of us as morally strange and the fact that many libertarians are not struck the same way is troubling. I can only attribute this lack of concern for the running-away of a five year old to the libertarian temptation to see entities either as property or autonomous persons. Of course, there is another category: non-autonomous persons (physically or mentally disabled, children) . Libertarians have structured their philosophy around rational persons and property rights and this third category (posing a confound to the theory) is disregarded.

Children seem to connote a special case, as I’ve mentioned, because the whole of child psychology is unanimous in demonstrating that children simply lack the cognitive ability to function as adults. We recognize the parent/child relationship as valid precisely for this reason: a recognition that children need guardians to, literally, guard their interests. Rothbard himself acknowledged this above, and it is difficult to see how he can simultaneously hold that children should not be allowed to do anything they’d like but that they can choose to run away.

The situation even gets more tenuous when we see Rothbard’s suggestion that parents can buy and sell children, so that parents that don’t want their children can exchange those children with those who do want (and can pay for) children.

In a purely libertarian society, the young child is not as bereft as might at first appear. For in such a society, every parent would have the right to sell their guardianship rights to others. In short, there would be a free market in babies and other children.

First, I want to say that as a libertarian, I see no huge problem with the idea of a ‘baby market.’ As Rothbard points out, we already trade babies under the laws of adoption, only we prohibit profit from the transaction.

That being said, the problem with this position is that it cannot simultaneously be held with Rothbard’s position that children have the right to run away. In other words, one cannot simultaneously hold that children can be sold by parents, that the children are analogous to house-guests (who cannot generally be sold) and that children have the right to run away (which means they are certainly not property and cannot be sold as such).

If Rothbard holds that children can be bought or sold, then this means that their parents have the right to buy and sell them WITHOUT THEIR CONSENT (which means that they are as “bereft as might at first appear”). It makes little sense, then, to say that children have the right to choose where they will live by running away!

And still, it gets worse!

Parents, then, have not only the moral right but the moral obligation and responsibility to raise their young children in preparation for adulthood, to care for, shelter, educate, and train their persons and their character. But suppose some parents do not perform such moral obligations? Can we say that the law—that outside enforcement agencies—have the right to step in and force the parents to raise their children properly? The answer must be no.

This makes the situation worse in the following way: Rothbard is saying both that the child has the right to leave the house whenever she pleases, but that there can be NO LAW preventing parents from doing things that would restrict this autonomy! There is no law, say, against keeping your child handcuffed and shackled in the basement, cutting their legs off, or depriving them of sensory stimulation so as to ensure lack of brain growth.

It seems then that, under Rothbard’s system, parents have every incentive to ‘protect their investment’ by ensuring that the child cannot run away (after all, they may want to sell the child). And since a child who can run away cannot fetch money, the parent might as well make sure that the child cannot run away by keeping her in the house against her will. (There is nothing in Rothbard’s system to prevent this, and it is difficult to imagine how the child has the right to run away while there is no prohibition on coercing the child in any way the parent sees fit).

So, here we have it: Murray Rothbard

(a) analogizes children to houeg-uests despite recognizing that, at a young age, they are incapable of choice, which most house-guests have

(b) suggest that the child has the right to run away despite also suggesting that children do not have the right to do as they please in other areas.

(c) suggests that children can be bought and sold (and can’t choose where they live) despite suggesting that they are free enough to run away (and can choose where they live)

None of these three positions make any sense, and the three of them put together reveal that Rothbard’s position is simply not much of a position at all. Children are property that can be sold, persons who can run away at will, autonomous enough to choose to run away, but not autonomous enough to choose what to eat for dinner.

I can only conjecture again that this bizarre position is the result of libertarian theory stretched beyond its limits. As mentioned, libertarians are quite adept at dealing with property and autonomous persons. The problem is that children do not fit into either group and, as such, libertarian ‘solutions’ to the ‘child problem” tend to end up as quite unsatisfactory.

While will not here offer a position of my own, I will hint at what I think the answer is. Following arguments made by education philosopher Harry Brighouse, I believe that it is best to see children as beings who will be autonomous in the future and, as such, treat acts that would significantly hinder that autonomy as violations of the child’s liberty. In other words, children may be best viewed as if they were people who didn’t know what their interests were yet, or at least, could not defend them. Parents, thus, would be charged with protecting the child (because they CHOSE to have the cild and, in so doing, accept tacit responsibility for that child’s care), and the state could only erect such laws as would protect the child’s future autonomy.

Libertarians will doubtless find a solution like this unsatisfactory, and as a libertarian myself, I have a certain dissatisfaction with it (as it NECESSARILY abridges the parents’ rights and justifies possible state intervention). But I cannot see any other way. Children are simply not property or autonomous persons.

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26 Responses

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  1. Psyborgue said, on February 10, 2010 at 1:51 am

    “That being said, the problem with this position is that it cannot simultaneously be held with Rothbard’s position that children have the right to run away.”

    Right, but kids have the *overriding* right to run away and declare themselves self-owners if they disagree with the transaction. It also could help in cases of abuse (without state intervention based on a majority view of what is abuse, such as smoking pot around a child). They might find some other foster/adoptive parents in the community on their own who are more caring and loving as a result, without the statist formalities required in a non-libertarian society.

    They might not find good homes, but then again, they can always run away again until they find a situation where they are treated better. If you envision the entire situation surrounding what he is proposing it makes sense. It may not provide the “greater good” of a state imposed solution but it provides the maximum liberty to parents to raise their kids as they choose as well as maximum liberty to the kids to decide whether or not to accept or reject their parent’s values. You might think this would lead to societal disaster and rebellious kids, but Amish have been doing this for years with the Rumspringa ritual and the vast majority of the kids return to their faith and familiy.

    • Todd Parker said, on April 11, 2013 at 7:32 am

      “They can always run away again until they find a situation where they are treated better.”

      Or, you know, starve to death or die of exposure in a ditch somewhere. Not that that would bother any self-respecting libertarian; after all, a child who is autonomous to run away ought to have considered the possible consequences and contingencies of his decisions, no? And wild dogs need a meal now and then.

  2. Psyborgue said, on February 10, 2010 at 1:54 am

    “There is no law, say, against keeping your child handcuffed and shackled in the basement, cutting their legs off, or depriving them of sensory stimulation so as to ensure lack of brain growth.”

    Obviously in such a case a child would wish to express his desire to run away, at which point he would become a self owner and such confinement/torture would become unlawful. The way I see it the only role of the state is to protect the rights of the individual. Perhaps this should be from the point where a child can speak and express that desire, perhaps earlier if a child is clearly suffering.

    • Jamin Hübner said, on May 6, 2014 at 4:19 am

      “Obviously in such a case a child would wish to express his desire to run away,”

      Is it really so obvious? I thought the same about sex-trafficking victims. Surely they’d run away when given the chance after such abuse. But the don’t. Human beings sometimes (even often) do not behave in ways we expect them to – which is a key flaw in Rothbard’s core theory of human action to begin with (that all human action is the result of one trying to improve one’s conditions; sometimes that simply is not the case – and more often than not, one person’s ‘improvement’ is not another’s…). I wish kids were smart enough to run away from abusive parents, and I wish that *adults* would be smart enough to stop relating with their abusive parents, and I wish women caught in the trap of sex trafficking were smart enough to leave the place of oppression – just as I wish the same for the people of North Korea. But that is not the world in which we live. Deception runs deep in the human heart and Rothbard’s theory is, well, only a theory at that point, and it cannot account for certain phenomena. Why we force theories of human action and economics to be the end-all theory for ethics, etc. is beyond me…

  3. KevinCK said, on February 10, 2010 at 2:47 am

    “Right, but kids have the *overriding* right to run away and declare themselves self-owners if they disagree with the transaction.”

    This is the part I don’t get in Rothbard’s work. According to him, parents owe children nothing in any legal sense, so why do they owe them the right to self-ownership? Doesn’t that constitute something of a legal claim on parents freedom to do with their children what they will?

    “Obviously in such a case a child would wish to express his desire to run away, at which point he would become a self owner and such confinement/torture would become unlawful.”

    Law, eh? Rothbard was an anarchist that believed that law was compulsion which is to be avoided. So, how is it that parents do not owe their children anything legally but that not granting the child a right to self-ownership could be unlawful? Who is imposing this law?

  4. KevinCK said, on February 10, 2010 at 2:49 am

    “Perhaps this should be from the point where a child can speak and express that desire, perhaps earlier if a child is clearly suffering.”

    If it is from the point where the child can speak and express that desire, then can’t I as a parent refuse to teach my child to speak? And under a Rothbardian system, who would stop me?

    If it is from a point where the “child is clearly suffering” who is the judge? Do others have the right to come into my home to check and see if my child is suffering to their definition of ‘suffering’?

    I simply don’t see how either of these is feasible under Rothbard’s system.

  5. Psyborgue said, on February 10, 2010 at 3:21 am

    “According to him, parents owe children nothing in any legal sense, so why do they owe them the right to self-ownership?”

    Because according to him they’re always potential self owners. The right is not derived or owed from the parents, it’s a natural right. So basically they’re property that have the potential to self-emancipate at any point.

    “Law, eh? Rothbard was an anarchist that believed that law was compulsion which is to be avoided.”

    Right, and I’m a minarchist ;). I agree with Rothbard on most of what he writes about rights, but also believe that a minimal, constitutionally limited government is a necessary evil for protection of those rights, an antibody to prevent a virus from taking hold of the whole body. It’s either that or “he who has the biggest guns makes the rules”, which is a recipe for the most awful forms of government available.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minarchism

    • KevinCK said, on February 10, 2010 at 12:16 pm

      Psyborgue,

      You write that “The right is not derived or owed from the parents, it’s a natural right. So basically they’re property that have the potential to self-emancipate at any point.”

      That doesn’t jibe with Rothbard’s statement in the essay I cite that children may be bought and sold. How can anything bought or sold have right to self-ownership? Rothbard is contradictory here because, if one can be bought and sold without consult, one does not have the right of self-ownership.

      I am a minarchist as well and frankly, I don’t recall where Rothbard said he was a minarchist. He always referred to himself as an ANARCHO-capitalist, and one cannot read “Ethics and Liberty” without seeing that he is anything but an anarchist, as he quarrels with minarchists like Nozick about their belief that a minimal state is necessary.

      Where are you getting your “Rothbard as minarchist” interpretation?

  6. Psyborgue said, on February 10, 2010 at 4:41 am

    “If it is from a point where the “child is clearly suffering” who is the judge?”

    I think if a child screams to get away when a parent enters the room, that qualifies. Whether or not its verbalized, it’s clear the child, in a sense, is expressing a desire to run away and has “declared” his self ownership. At that point the baby likely would enter into another voluntary contract with a willing foster parent (how to organize that is anybody’s guess… “first come, first serve” adoption is one way I suppose). Again, it wouldn’t be a violation of a parent’s “property” rights if the child expressed a clear desire to leave. It might be argued that a baby cannot express self ownership but I think that “i don’t like you, i want to go” and “I like you, i want to stay” are desires even a baby can express.

    “Do others have the right to come into my home to check and see if my child is suffering to their definition of ’suffering’?”

    I’d have to say no, but if a child is being held against his/her will I think it should be treated like any other kidnapping case if such a situation is discovered (by neighbors, for example). On examination, if the child is comfortable with somebody else and terrified of the parents, I’d say it’s clear the child is expressing a desire to change custodians, even if its not verbalized.

    It’s not what Rothbard argued exactly, but I think it’s fitting with his line of thinking.

    Have you read Rothbard’s “Ethics of Liberty”? You might find chapter 14 interesting:
    http://mises.org/rothbard/ethics/fourteen.asp

    Although Rothbard does argue a parent has the right to stop supporting a child (even a baby), I imagine a starving baby would express a desire to leave (“not happy here”).

    He writes: “For the child has his full rights of self-ownership when he demonstrates that he has them in nature—in short, when he leaves or “runs away” from home. Regardless of his age, we must grant to every child the absolute right to runaway and to find new foster parents who will voluntarily adopt him, or to try to exist on his own.”

    • KevinCK said, on February 10, 2010 at 12:26 pm

      “I think if a child screams to get away when a parent enters the room, that qualifies.”

      Children often scream when a parent enters the room as a matter of course: they don’t want to go to bed, receive a punishment, etc. If the fact of a child screaming when a parent enters the room is the criteria for others to take it away, then many children can be taken away even when there is no abuse going on.

      Or maybe the child living under a Rothbardian scheme simply doesn’t want to be sold to its new parents. :>

      “.. if a child is being held against his/her will I think it should be treated like any other kidnapping case if such a situation is discovered (by neighbors, for example).”

      The child was kidnapped? You say “like any other kidnapping case” as if this were a type of kidnapping case. The overarching reason kidnapping is wrong is not that a person is being tortured (people who are kidnapped but not tortured are still taken away) but the fact that they were taken. The child in this case was not taken. Do rules for kidnapping really apply?

      “On examination, if the child is comfortable with somebody else and terrified of the parents, I’d say it’s clear the child is expressing a desire to change custodians, even if its not verbalized.”

      On whose examination? Are we talking about a child protective services in our Rothbardian vision? If we are talking about private citizens examining the child, I am not sure how a Rothbardian system would allow others to come into my home and ‘examine’ my child to SEE if there has been any absuse gone one. (Of course, I could always come into your house without much cause, and through leading questions, prod your child into telling me that there’s been abuse, couldn’t I?)

      “Although Rothbard does argue a parent has the right to stop supporting a child (even a baby), I imagine a starving baby would express a desire to leave (“not happy here”).”

      But this occurs right before Rothbard tells us that parents have the right to buy and sell their children without first consulting them. So, I am not sure how this can be interpreted in any way that doesn’t conflict with a child’s right to exit at her will.

  7. Bill Starr said, on February 19, 2010 at 5:17 pm

    Good article, Kevin. This is a thorny issue. As a libertarian Christian, I tend to rely more on the teachings of Christianity than on the teachings of libertarianism for child rearing guidance. But I have quite an interest in how to reconcile the viewpoints.

    • Jamin Hübner said, on May 6, 2014 at 4:22 am

      As a professor of theology and libertarian, I feel the same. Although I think Rothbard is simply making too much of a theory that cannot be the lens through which to view, well, everything.
      This article is great though in pointing out the inconsistencies…

  8. Jerry said, on May 25, 2010 at 8:48 am

    Have you not read the Objectivisit response (Rand’s philosophy) to the issue of child-rearing? It’s the most consistent and satisfactory. Here’s the position articulated by an Objectivist philosopher Diana Hsieh:

    “Parents are obliged to care for any child brought willingly into existence (i.e. not aborted) and then brought home (i.e. not adopted). By doing so, the parents create a creature with a right to life, yet utterly dependent on themselves, and they exclude others from caring for it. To do that, then withhold the food, clothing, or education that the child needs to survive in order to become a self-supporting adult — that would be a monstrous violation of that child’s rights.

    Parents are obliged to care for their children for the basic reason that the owner of sailboat cannot simply leave a passenger swimming in the middle of the ocean. Contrary to concrete-bound libertarian nonsense, to do that would be an initiation of force and a violation of rights. That’s because the captain has assumed responsibility for safely transporting the swimmer, knowing that the swimmer’s life depends on his doing so. The swimmer has a right to be returned to land, where he can fend for himself. To leave him in the ocean would be murder.

    The child is like the swimmer, except without the benefit of consenting to the journey. His parents created him as a dependent being, and they are obliged to nurture him in some very basic ways (e.g. food, clothing, shelter, basic education) until he can fend for himself. Or they must find someone else willing and able to assume that responsibility.

    If people want to know why I recoil from the term “libertarian,” the fact that views like Rothbard’s on parental obligations are standard fare should be a clue. Sure, he might talk about rights and free markets, but clearly, his whole understanding of those topics is warped by concrete-bound rationalism about initiating force. If implemented, the practical result of his ideas would be a monstrously barbaric society. I don’t support that, and I won’t tolerate it. I oppose it!

    The people who advocate views like Rothbard’s — or tolerate them from their political allies — are not my political allies, except perhaps on some very narrow, concrete issues. And I don’t wish to make common cause with them, nor be included among their number. The mere thought of Rothbard’s views in practice turns my stomach, and I hope that other lovers of liberty have the same reaction.

  9. KevinCK said, on May 25, 2010 at 2:13 pm

    Jerry,

    Thanks for the info. I have not read Rand’s work on childrearing. What essays should I look for?

    The problem is still there though: even with Rand (as you synopsize her. Part of the problem, you bring up when you write: “The child is like the swimmer, except without the benefit of consenting to the journey.” Exactly right: the child has not consented to the journey. The problem for libertarians (and Objectivists) is that their philosophy depends on the idea that force cannot be initiated in human interaction. (If I’m not mistaken, this was a key reason why Rand supported Montessori schools?) If that is the case, then why can parents, say, coerce their five year old but not their 18 year old? And is that line dividing child (coercable) and adult (not coercable) arbitrary? Rothbard was trying to be consistent in not allowing parents the right to coerce their children. Is Rand inconsistent, then?

    Secondly,. if children have a right to be taken care of by the parents, does the state also at some point have a right to intervene if the child is not being taken care of well? If not, then can we really say the child has a right to be taken care of? If so, does this contradict the idea that the state cannot intervene in private affairs?

    What I am trying to get at is that the ‘children’ question is a tricky one for libertarians because children occupy a ground somewhere between property (parents own them and may coerce them) and people (parents may not abuse them and we do recognize some degree of sovereignty amongst children).

    I would like to read Rand’s essays regarding child rearing so if you can recommend some, that would be great. But I don’t think, from your synopsis, that she really solved much of the problem. The problem is: is there a non-arbitrary way to determine whether or when children may be coerced and whether or when the state may act en loco parentis.

  10. […] During my fitful recovery over the ingestion of a lukewarm chicken breast, or too-old carrot, or whatever it was I will never know for sure, I occupied myself by returning to an essential question of libertarian philosophy last introduced in my previous post regarding prostitution. From a rights-based perspective, the Prostitution topic provides a fantastic entry point to one of my favorite (read: unresolved) philosophical inquiries: the question of whether Children are indeed People. Phrased less flippantly, my struggle is in understanding the nature of “children’s rights” (or, phrased more flippantly, “Kid Lib”!). This issue remains a key sticking point of libertarian philosophy that, when left unresolved, allows the paternalist to cloak all sorts of value-based arguments in the defense of a child’s “best interest”. At the same time, it is a subject that presents particular difficulties for libertarian thinkers, as blogger KevinCK articulates in his blog education philosopher: […]

  11. Birth Mom said, on August 6, 2012 at 2:19 am

    And adoption. I want more on that!

  12. Birth Mom said, on August 6, 2012 at 2:29 am

    Problem is you need more woman in the Libertarian Philosophy. Soem right brain thinking would def help. It “feel” the answere to these questions, but my left brain is not able to put them into words anyone could make much sense of. It would’t do my theory justice, once I try to write it. Anyone else have that problem? Ask yourself these questions during meditation and I bet the answers come more clearly. A am no minanarchist .Im an a anarchist. But somehow this makes sense to me. One thing is your not mentioning individuals standing up to parents who are abusing children Why must it always be the state? I had my daughter taken from mwe and signed my rights away. legally I was an adult. WBut I knew nothing of what was going one and was tricked. Theres a whole nother avenuew. Was my child not property then> apparently to the agency she was. I love the free market adoption theory. Adoption agencies are just mini criminal gov’ts micromanaging families horribly.

  13. Rand Allan said, on January 14, 2013 at 4:17 pm

    Rather than defaulting to the state as a means to enforce the rights of the child, I would like us to explore non-coercive ways to enforce those rights. I don’t have a solution, but there are always ways that we can voluntarily enforce a solution without involving the state, which always seems to screw up anything they try. Perhaps some sort of mediation like an arbitrator, or an information campaign to change the minds of people. Once the kid becomes self-aware of his rights, at that point, maybe he or another adult can demand arbitration to resolve the problem.

    • Daniel Ryan said, on June 9, 2016 at 1:14 pm

      Child abuse is wrong, period. It should not be tolerated and should absolutely be punished. This is a case where state intervention is justified and necessary. No amount of economics is going to resolve it.

  14. Jamin Hübner said, on May 6, 2014 at 4:40 am

    “None of these three positions make any sense, and the three of them put together reveal that Rothbard’s position is simply not much of a position at all. Children are property that can be sold, persons who can run away at will, autonomous enough to choose to run away, but not autonomous enough to choose what to eat for dinner.”

    Brilliant.

    I think this article moves the discussion forward and points out the big problem with libertarian theory (in its purist sense): how a philosophy entirely oriented around individual rights leads to absurdities and genuine internal contradictions. But that should be expected, because this world was not really man-centered, and there is more than the individual. Animals and children pose the hardest problems for libertarians because, as you have said, libertarian theory starts off by assuming a rational adult human being as the fixed, center point of reference, and children and animals (and other things) do not fit that category, and are therefore compromised in the process. Torturing dolphins for fun and sending your two-year old off into the woods because he (thinks he) wants new parents is stupid and evil regardless of what Rothbard says. Hopefully other libertarians can have the humility to concede as much. Even so, I appreciate Rothbard’s guts in trying to be consistent; it at least shows us where theories can lead…

    Solution? I think a legal age would be the most fitting – and a list of clear rights that do not apply to children in the same manner as applying to adults. It’s not perfect and will have legal and judicial challenges, but it’s better than the alternatives. Rothbard, of course, rejects this, saying (Ethics of Liberty ch 14): ” But when are we to say that this parental trustee jurisdiction over children shall come to an end? Surely any particular age (21,18, or whatever) can only be completely arbitrary.” Yes, it is arbitrary, but so is my choice of ham over beef for lunch, and a million other human decisions. Perhaps they aren’t *purely* arbitrary (the low salt content in my blood caused me to choose one over the other), but that’s hardly always traceable. The point? If human beings make “arbitrary” decisions, and if the human being (the individual) is the center point of reference for our entire ethical system, then the ethical system that the individual(s) creates will necessarily contain arbitrariness as well, and libertarianism is no exception. In other words, Rothbard and libertarians like him are in search for the perfectly coherent system when it does not in fact exist, precisely because human beings are not perfectly coherent – much less is creation, which is broken and fallen and in need of redemption. All that is left, then, are the lesser of multiple evils. Libertarianism (minarchy in my view) is a lesser form of evil than our current state of democracy/interventionism/etc. in America, but not all forms of libertarianism are equal. Rothbard could use more tension and Hajek-ism (how little we really know!) and less reductionism.

    Frankly, I think a truly libertarian theory would recognize that there are more natural rights and liberties out there than human natural rights, and that (as has been adequately pointed out in this article) more categories must be part of the theory; natural rights and principles of property are a tiny slice of what’s going on. There is more freedom than human freedom, and that means more potential for conflict and infringement, and the need for a more comprehensive system. The rights of children and the rights that children do not have is an excellent example in this regard.
    ja

  15. Jamin Hübner said, on May 6, 2014 at 4:48 am

    Oh, and I forgot to mention that if Rothbard were consistent, procreation must be the greatest aggression of all – for people are literally choosing, with no consent of the one being brought into existence, whether or not the person will be brought into existence. If it is such a great act of tyranny to force my 12 year old how to play piano, how much great a tyranny to have brought him into the world without his consent in the first place – and to have not brought other individuals into the world at the same time with every choice not to reproduce. Or, put differently, if I can choose the very existence of an individual, why is it so wrong to tell them what to do thereafter – at least in their younger years? Is that not why parents have authority over children to begin with?

    I think if everyone reflects on the fact that their very lives are the result of something that they have no choice or control over, perhaps we would realize that not all “decisions by force” are to be opposed.

  16. Morten Pedersen said, on June 22, 2014 at 8:37 am

    Incredibly weak article. You didnt get the “trustee”-point.

  17. wargames83 said, on December 3, 2015 at 12:59 pm

    Hey Rothbardians, don’t have kids. Please, just don’t do it.

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  19. Ashley said, on December 22, 2015 at 9:13 am

    I completely agree with you, there is truly no way around it. CPS falls into this topic rather nicely. Could it be completely cut realistically? Even when it’s said “Leave it to the Churches,” do we really want churches to have the authority to take children away? Such services absolutely do require overhaul, but protection of children’s rights may just mean putting up with a public service.

  20. Daniel Ryan said, on June 9, 2016 at 1:09 pm

    Late comer to this debate, but nonetheless-this is a case where I think Rothbard was being too intellectual for his own good and probably spent too much time inside his own head analyzing and over-analyzing. Child abuse is wrong, period (and neglect is absolutely a form of abuse). As much as libertarians may detest the concept of government of any kind, I feel safe in saying that few of them would want to live in a society where there are no laws to punish child abusers, nor where police and courts do not have the ability to apprehend child abuses and remove children from an abusive environment. It is an example where that ever loathed state intervention is absolutely justified and necessary. The argument of a “free market for children” also falls flat because, once again, I feel safe in saying that most of society, even most libertarians, would find the idea of parents selling their children for profit to be utterly reprehensible. Much as I admire some of Rothbard’s theories, that is really all they are-theories, that will never be applicable in the real world because, quite simply sometimes reality bites.


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